The interview hasn’t started yet, but Moe Pope is already in a talkative mood. It’s a Monday night at the retail location for online record store Undergroundhiphop.com (UGHH) on Huntington Avenue, and as he unpacks equipment from a suitcase, he’s offering some advice to Casso, a 20-year-old aspiring rapper who makes a scene-stealing cameo on “Pressure,” a cut from Pope’s second full-length collaboration with producer Rain, titled “Let the Right Ones In,” which arrives in stores on Jan. 22.
“The great thing about life is that there is no ‘best,’ ” says Pope, who celebrates the album’s release on Jan. 25 at Brighton Music Hall alongside guests Ceschi, John Robinson, and others. “On Friday, people may want Moe Pope. On Saturday, they may want Ghostface. On Sunday, they may want to hear some Joni Mitchell. There’s an audience there, you just got to find it.”
Pope could hardly have chosen a better statement to sum up the state of his own career. After more than a decade spent establishing his reputation as one of Boston’s brightest hip-hop talents — first with the groups Electric Company and Project Move before recording his solo debut, “Megaphone,” with producer Headnodic — the Roxbury-born rapper met with Rain to make a few tracks together in 2009. The chemistry between them was instant, and within months they were sharing lead artist credits on “Life After God,” a brooding and brilliant record that solidified their creative bond.
But aside from simply being a great record, “Life After God” was the clearest indication yet that Pope and Rain had found what they suspected all along: that an audience existed for a hip-hop record that reveled in both joy and pain, rap and rock and everything in between, and that they didn’t need to leave Boston to find it.
“Hip-hop is always new, it’s always different, and I want to be a part of that difference,” Pope explains. “I don’t want to stay the same because hip-hop isn’t staying the same. People have to realize that just because we are doing something different it’s not because it’s not hip-hop, it’s because hip-hop is ever changing. The Roots are not a different kind of hip-hop just because they are on Jimmy Fallon. They are still the Roots and Black Thought will still rap your face off. So that’s what I'm saying. I’m as hip-hop as Casso, he’s as hip-hop as Dutch [ReBelle], Dutch is as hip-hop as Grey Sky Appeal. It’s all different forms of a great Boston hip-hop scene.”
The album’s title, a dual reference to the Morrissey song “Let the Right One Slip In” and the Swedish teen-angst horror film “Let the Right One In,” is itself an indication of the group’s myriad of influences, but also to its overall artistic philosophies. Pope grew up as a self-professed “rock kid” in the Academy Homes housing complex in Roxbury, and Rain is a multi-instrumentalist who plays drums, bass, and keyboards. Combined with input from Chris Talkin, the group’s supporting vocalist and a key part of their creative braintrust, “Let the Right Ones In” takes on the challenge of revamping and expanding the formula that worked so well on “Life After God.”
“The goal was to create our own sound,” says Pope. “We didn’t want to sound like anyone else. We’re not from Philly, we’re not from New York, we’re from here. So this is our sound. Let’s make our sound different. So it’s like how do we do that? Play it ourselves.”
“It’s like going from a coloring book to a blank canvas,” Rain explains of the decision to go from sample-based beats to composing completely original instrumentals. “If you are sampling, all you have to do is fill in the blanks. When you aren’t sampling, there’s nothing for you to work with. It’s just a blank slate. There’s not even a place to start, because if you have a sample you can throw some drums on it or do whatever you want. But where do you start with the other stuff? It was a lot of trial and error.”
“At the end of the record, you understand where we’re coming from musically,” adds Talkin, whose punk rock background and stage presence at live shows has become part of the group’s calling card. “You get a glimpse of what else we are into. It’s shocking sometimes. Sometimes we try to integrate it slowly. But as it goes on more and more, people start to understand the aesthetic of it.”
In creating a new sound, Rain is able to provide a richer instrumental platform for Pope to expound on the themes explored on “Life After God.” Warm horns and hand claps color the laid-back head-nod of the single “What You Need,” but more often than not the beats bubble with a seductive underlying tension that blurs the line between the upbeat and the morbid. Images of death and decay creep in throughout the album, from the metaphoric vignettes on “Meet Joe Black,” to zombie references on “Annie Mullz,” to album closer “Flatline,” which has Pope writing his own obituary with a clear-eyed sense of purpose. Rather than backing away from powerful emotions, Pope and Rain invited them into the record.
“I try to as much as I can to give a well-rounded picture of what my life is on every record,” says Pope. “I grew up in probably the worst projects in the city at the time and I was affected by my surroundings. You are affected by your friends who have passed, you are affected by the sounds and the sirens and the shootings, you are affected by the broken mortar falling off the buildings. But you are also affected by a father picking up his kid after school and kids playing the playground and an older person teaching a young kid truth. So I really tried to give a little bit of happiness in myself and a little bit of pain, and I hope that comes out in anything I do.”
As the group gets ready to begin rehearsing ahead of the album release show, the conversation shifts toward different topics, such as Boston’s musical infrastructure and certain venues’ anti-hip-hop bias. But there are signs that the city is beginning to embrace Pope and Rain’s efforts at breaking the stigma: They recently collected the Boston Music Award for best hip-hop artist, and their work is having a strong influence on a new generation of local rappers, Casso being a prime example. Things aren’t perfect, but a few of the right ones are getting in.
“Our sound doesn’t have to be the Boston sound, it just has to be ours,” says Pope. “That’s all I care about. It has to be ours and reflect where I grew up and what I am. All of this will embody something different in us. That’s all that matters to me. As long as Boston people love my music, I don’t really care.”